The Truth About Privilege

Privilege. It’s a scary word for some. The idea that one group of people is automatically counted while others are left behind – seen as better, and treated as such, is repulsive. I think a lot of people feel this way, both those with privilege and those without. No one alive today created the system that dolls out privilege more than it does basic human rights – some simply exploit it. (I feel like these people are the minority to be clear.)

For me, I’ve been aware of privilege most of my life. I’m a disabled, gay, bi-gendered (or genderqueer, I really don’t care what label is used) non-Christian, white person. In nearly every category I have been the one who is outside of privilege. But it wasn’t until I was aware of my own privilege that I became aware of privilege as a concept. I grew up in a comfortable enough family. Money wasn’t an issue. Sure both of my parents always wanted more, but neither of them were actually hurting for it. Vacations and Nintendo and Christmas gifts – they were all standard. And by standard I mean not-so-standard but at the time I didn’t realize that.

By the time I was fourteen however, I was more or less on my own. Being openly gay in an uber-conservative, Catholic family was not advisable, but I didn’t care. I suddenly found myself bouncing place to place and at times homeless. My upper-middle class privilege was gone. I felt like I was Cinderella in reverse. But it humbled me. And it cleared a lot of things up.

Throughout high school heterosexual privilege was very, very loud. I saw it everywhere and experienced it at least a dozen times a day. I had to worry about my physical safety, who I hung out with, where I went and what I wore – all centered around my sexual orientation and gender identity. I have also been disabled my entire life, having dozens of brain surgeries, a few heart surgeries, bone surgeries (I have a brittle bone disease), and was severely hard of hearing. Now I’m actually deaf, have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, bone marrow disorder and a few other chronic problems that leaves me joking about how my body hates me. But going through school, getting note takers because I could not write, or testing accommodations, figuring out how to understand when I could not hear well… it was always a struggle. Because again, I was not privileged.

I love my husband, Roy. But he and I are very different, and not just in terms of personality; our life experiences are also polar opposites. Roy is white, Christian and stayed in the closet until his early thirties. His family is very comfortable, so as a child he never went without (this is not the same as being spoiled, Roy and his siblings are not spoiled, but they also were never deprived of anything due to lack of resources). Roy is able-bodied. Roy has had every privilege that exists for most of his life. And until a few years ago he had never heard of privilege. Like it didn’t exist.

ROY: You have to understand that the whole concept of privilege is a new thing. It’s only come up in the last five years or so. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

Except privilege has existed a lot longer than that. The idea of privilege has existed longer and so has a lot of the terminology. I was speaking out against heterosexism (institutionalized straight privilege) for nearly twenty years.

What started out as a discussion about something where privilege simply came up, but was not the focus became an intense fifty minute discussion about whether it even existed.

For me, being aware for so long, and seeing a man who is probably ten times the person I am (seriously a better human than me) – it hurt to see his struggle to understand. He admitted when hearing it before he just figured it was liberal propaganda. Then he, my fiercest advocate in all things, found himself backed into a corner, ablesplaining a few things to me. When I told him that was what he was doing he looked hurt. And I was hurt. And that’s the thing about privilege – nothing good comes from it, to those who are privileged to those who are not.

I understood what Roy was going through on some level because I went through it too. No matter how underprivileged I may be, I still have privilege. For example, I’m white. I’ll always be white, and because of that I have privilege. When I realized that I possessed white privilege, sometime in high school, I felt so gross. I had this thing that I did not ask for. It made me feel guilty, ashamed and I just wanted to get rid of it. But I had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t get rid of it. I can reject it. Be aware of it and make sure it is not used in my favor to the best of my abilities. Beyond that, I’m stuck. I didn’t ask for it. I don’t want it. But the thing is – none of that matters, or changes the fact that I possess it.

When a person is faced with the terrible truth that they possess privilege – it’s going to be a process. If that person rejects it, there is going to possibly be a little denial, maybe some anger or sorrow and most certainly a little guilt, whether subconscious or on the surface. Because being outside of privilege sucks. But having privilege when you do not want it, sucks almost as much.

My husband is the most giving, optimistic, generous, thoughtful, selfless and idealistic person I know. It makes the realist in me a little ill sometimes. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone of any economic class, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, etc. These amazing qualities are not limited by any group one may or may not belong to. And yet in that denial he brought up defenses like “affirmative action”. I didn’t see this as him being thick as much as I saw it as denial. That horrible sickening dread where you start bargaining and trying to rationalize how something cannot possibly be true.

Roy confessed to now knowing much about privilege. He needed to research it. When I asked him why he didn’t know more about it when he himself has admitted to hearing of it for the last few years he admitted he did not believe it and therefore didn’t care to know about it. I think my response jolted him out of his bubble of denial:

ME: Exactly. And the very fact that you can choose not to think about it, or care, and can just put it aside IS privilege. You will never have to worry about your children going out of the house and school them on how to avoid and talk to police. You don’t have to worry about whether you’ll have access to a building or be able to participate because of disabilities and the lack of accommodations. When you interview for a job, whether or not you’re expecting a child won’t come up, and if it does, it won’t matter. That’s what your wife is for. That is privilege.

Roy changed after that statement. He became less defensive and more reflective, maybe even slightly embarrassed. He said he hated the idea of privilege because it felt like he was being attacked. Like he should apologize for it. Feel guilty for it.

Roy: You’re telling me I need to feel guilty for something I can’t control?

ME: No, I am not saying that. I’m saying you shouldn’t feel guilty unless you asked for it, which you did not, or exploit it, which you don’t. But you should be aware of it. You should open your eyes to it. No one blames you for your privilege unless you actually use it to discriminate against someone. But not actively using or not wanting it doesn’t change the fact that you have it. And some of those privileges you will always have.

I told him that while he shouldn’t feel guilty, it’s only natural to feel that way when one finally accepts and acknowledges the privilege they possess. It’s like the coming out process. There are some aspects that are universal even if they manifest in different forms or degrees. Privilege sucks, but nearly everyone has some kind of privilege. If you are white, male, straight, Christian, a youngish adult (24-50), able-bodied, or upper-middle class then you have these privileges or any combination thereof. I may have little privilege, but it doesn’t take away the privilege that I do possess.

I constantly find myself biting my tongue or in the kindest way possible, telling people to check their privilege and reminding myself to check mine. What started this whole intense conversation was discussing a piece I wrote, and Roy read, that talked about the disability community and its allies. I have grown up knowing and recognizing the importance of allies. I appreciate them and see them as absolutely necessary. But I have never had an ally of LGBT people speak on the behalf of someone who is LGBT. I’ve never seen them act as though they were the expert on all things gay. Being disabled, I actually encounter allies speaking for me, as if my voice is their voice, constantly. It’s like many allies of people with disabilities forget we can still speak for ourselves. That in turn causes open hostility and/or leeriness when it comes to just what we allow our allies to do, or how involved they can be. It’s a vicious, two-sided cycle. And I talked about it. And that is how privilege came up in the first place. Because when able-bodied allies speak for people with disabilities I actually believe they usually have the best of intentions. I just think they forget to check their privilege. It’s unintentional and the only thing everyone can do is recognize it, identify it, and then move forward from there.

Roy told me that he felt that talking about privilege in my piece was divisive and distracting. But then how could I discuss allies at all? Because it’s not just on people with disabilities to include them – allies need to be aware of the boundaries of privilege. I pointed out that as an ally, privilege was the only part of my piece that made him “uncomfortable” (we couldn’t agree on the word to use, but it certainly was the only part of the piece that elicited such a discussion and differing opinions). Whereas telling people with disabilities to stop being so defensive with allies and to allow them to help, probably won’t go over well with a lot of people with disabilities. Allies in the disabled community was the story and every story has two sides (well usually much more, but work with me). How people with disabilities respond to and interact with their allies is one side, and the other side is allies checking their privilege. I can’t tell a one-sided story and Roy agreed with me on that. He didn’t know where to go from there.

Going back to Roy’s divisive comment, made me think. Is privilege always a divisive topic? Yes and no. I think about my friends from graduate school. I recently saw several of them at a conference. I think of all these people and don’t see a single one denying the existence of privilege or the privileges they may have. And it’s a diverse group of men, women, straight and LGBTQ, Christian and non-Christian, several different ethnicities, classes and ages, disabled and able-bodied. But then I think about other people I know and I do feel like they may get defensive when faced with privilege. Why?

I think it’s all about awareness. Those who are aware and have accepted that privilege exists aren’t fazed by it. It’s old news, and something they cannot change. I think people who have not accepted privilege, either its existence or their own, are the ones that will falter. Because in some ways it feels like they’re being called out – even if they’re not. So is it divisive? It depends on where a person is in coming to terms with the concept of privilege and what privileges that individual may have.

But for me, divisive or not, privilege needs to be acknowledged and understood by those who aren’t already familiar with it. Those that are, all they can do is be aware and make sure they don’t cater to their privilege. I think that those who have not accepted it are struggling with the guilt (or denial which will eventually give way to guilt once they have moved on from that) and that is something everyone has to work through on their own. But speaking for myself, belonging to several marginalized groups, I am never angry with a person who is privileged unless they are actively discriminating against me. Let that sink in for a minute. You don’t need to apologize for your privilege. You don’t need to feel guilty. Those without privilege don’t think of it as an automatic strike against you. You simply need to be aware of it.

Because maybe if enough people with privilege recognized it, and rejected it, maybe, just maybe there may come a day when it stops being a thing. I guess that’s what I ultimately dream of. The day when we don’t just say that everyone is equal and has equal opportunities, but when that statement actually becomes true. How truly wonderful that would be.

-DMW

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